As I said in my last blog, plagiarism is when you take somebody else’s idea, borrow it and hand it back to them damp, sweaty and a bit used up, but otherwise unchanged. When you steal an idea, take it out of its comfortable environment and bend it into your own image. Maybe I didn’t actually say that, but I should have.
You don’t necessarily have to make an idea altogether your own. I have seen some good fan-fiction using the characters and worlds of Star Trek, Harry Potter, Firefly and other works of fiction. Such fan-fiction usually seem to be based on film, television or juvenile literature. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it is because that is the sort of work that appeals to young artists first yearning to express themselves. Perhaps the comfort of familiar characters and somewhat familiar circumstances makes writing feel safer. Possibly the relative simplicity of such works gives writers a sense of room to play in these worlds. I’ve done some fan-fiction based, usually, on Star Trek. I wouldn’t count what I’ve done as good fan-fiction, but I’ve done it. In spite of that, I can’t quite say I know why it’s appealing. Mainly, I’d say I just found a world that appealed to me and I wanted to make it a little more real. I wanted to add a few more details to the imaginary world; flesh it out with a few more stories.
What I want to do now is different. I want to make a new world, altogether my own. As with my previous attempts at fanfic, I want my work to be informed or driven by the stories and characters and situations that have appealed to me in the past, but I also want it to be informed and driven by my own ideas and my own experiences. I am using some concepts and images from some earlier works done by others to drive and inspire my work, but I chose, at least for now, not to live in their worlds.
One work I have been paying a lot of attention to lately, both as an appealing work of fiction in its own right and for what I can take from it of the process of adapting the ideas of others to my own purposes is the BBC television show, Sherlock. As you might figure from the title, Sherlock, is based on the characters and situations created by Arthur Conan Doyle, particularly Sherlock Holmes. In some sense, Sherlock is a very slick and well-funded fanfic dedicated to the Sherlock Holmes stories written in the late 19th and early 20th century. Significantly, Sherlock tries to adapt the stories to the early 21st century. What makes the process interesting to me is that the creators of this show did not merely take those original stories and characters and recast them into the present by changing the period costumes and maybe updating the vernacular of the dialogue. The different culture and technology of the early 21st century is integral, even if only in a fairly shallow way, to the stories. The most important and visible sign of the difference is in the way iPhones are used in these stories. It’s hard to imagine a Sherlock Holmes story set at the turn of the last century where a dangerous climactic confrontation is interrupted and defused by an embarrassing cellphone ringtone. You could, possibly imagine it, but it would be silly. In the other direction, a lot of the scenarios and conflicts of stories from earlier times include an element of the difficulty of communication and unavailability of information. These difficulties still exist: cell phones go out of range, google-fu fails miserably, some information lies behind firewalls or is not yet available electronically, but increasingly, the reasonable assumption is that communication only requires you to reach into your pocket and information only requires you to ask the right question.
Superficially identical problems in different times and places may have very different solutions that are opened up by better accessibility of timely information.
Remember when considering this that it isn’t only the protagonist that has access to the new technologies and new solutions. The solution that worked so well and reasonably for a protagonist in a story set some time in the past may be blocked by antagonist able to act on timelier information. Similar puzzles can be just as apparently intractable with the symmetrical availability of information as they would have seemed with apparent unavailability of information. So not only are the solutions different, but the problems can be different as well.
Applying these lessons to a science-fiction story set around other stars in the distant future gives a hint as to how to make old stories new. In the future, one can assume, barring some sort of an apocalyptic disaster, increasing availability of information. Or maybe not. Given the same set of initial conditions, what solutions would be made available or unavailable if information needed half an hour to make its way from Earth to Mars or weeks months or years to be transmitted between to worlds in different star systems. A “realistic” interstellar Sherlock Holmes story set in a universe without FTL(which is, so far, what our own appears to be) could have some very different assumptions than those made by either Doyle or Moffat in their respective times.
These differences are part of what a science fiction writer wants to use to make their story different than something that might have been written by Homer. Playing with these differences is a big part of what makes a story science fiction as opposed to a western In Space! or a Victorian locked door mystery In Space!
I’m kind of playing with some ideas here that are new to me at the moment, and I’m still not quite sure where I’m going with all this myself. It just seems like it might be illuminating, so I continue, with difficulty, to try grasping at what seems like an important germ of an idea. Thank you for your attention and for any effort you might be able to make in helping to find my way through the murk…